Wednesday, 04 March 2020 13:02

Poet, priest, politician and revolutionary: RIP Ernesto Cardenal

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in Poetry

Tim Hollins pays homage to Ernesto Cardenal (1925 - 2020), Nicaraguan poet, priest, politician, and revolutionary

Perhaps only in Nicaragua would those 4 terms sit easily to describe one extraordinary figure from the Sandinista Revolution – Ernesto Cardenal, who has died aged 95.

Best known as Minister for Culture (1979 – 87) in the first Revolutionary Government of the Sandinistas, after the overthrow of the 40 year long dictatorship, Cardenal was a key cultural figure before and throughout the turbulent years of the Revolution, when liberation theology, in direct opposition to the mainstream Catholic hierarchy (and of course the Vatican) was an important strand.

Cardenal promoted liberation theology and embraced Marxism – "Christ led me to Marx," he said in a 1984 interview. His poetry was eclectic, and touched on topics ranging from science to scripture, from imperialism to Marilyn Monroe, and he wrote a homage to the long suffering indigenous communities enslaved by the conquistadores.

from Zero Hour

by Ernesto Cardenal

translated by Donald D. Walsh

(It is the 1930s)

Tropical nights in Central America,
With moonlit lagoons and volcanoes
And lights from presidential palaces,
Barracks and sad curfew warnings.

"Often while smoking a cigarette
I've decided that a man should die,"
Says Ubico, smoking a cigarette . . .
In his pink-wedding-cake palace
Ubico has a head cold. Outside, the people
Were dispersed with phosphorous bombs.

San Salvador laden with night and espionage,
With whispers in homes and boarding houses
And screams in police stations.
Carías' palace stoned by the people.
A window of his office has been smashed,
And the police have fired upon the people.
And Managua the target of machine guns
From the chocolate-box palace
And steel helmets patrolling the streets.

Watchman! What hour of the night is it?

Like many Nicaraguans his relationship to ‘Sandinismo’ was complex and developed over time – from the euphoria of the defeat of the dictatorship in 1979, and his appointment to the Government, to distance and separation after the electoral defeat of the Revolution (1990), under extreme pressure from the US-inspired and funded Contra war. Cardenal broke with the FSLN and its leader Daniel Ortega in 1994, citing increasing authoritarianism. He had also been suspended by the Catholic Church from saying Mass or giving the sacraments, but was reinstated by Pope Francis 2 years ago.

A further extract from Zero Hour that encapsulates some of that early idealism of the war that had to be fought against barbarity:

And though they had a military hierarchy they were all equal
With no distinction of rank when they shared their food
And their clothes
They all received the same rations
And the leaders had no lieutenants
It was more like a commune than an army
And it was not military discipline that united them, but love
Though there was never such unity in an army.  

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